The violet irises will never be complete. Velvety purples and yellow pollen dust, the details that mark each petal, dwindle to the left of the canvas. Yet the painting is beautiful. Behind the flowers is a Maine shore bathed in sun, a distant pine forest, a soft sunset. Everything about the scene breathes tranquility like a warm breeze. It was Marilyn Carr’s final painting.
A longtime resident of Maine, Marilyn died on Feb. 22, 2009, at age 77 after a long battle with ovarian cancer. Two years later, her husband, Ben, has organized an exhibit of her artwork running through the end of November at the University of Maine at Machias Art Gallery.
“It’s retrospective in that it shows the earliest days up until the end,” Ben said as he stood before pencil drawings that Marilyn created in grade school of her dog, Nippy.
Ben had two well-lit rooms summing up his wife’s passion — art. Throughout her life, she produced a vast collection of paintings, and she passed on her love of creativity to Down East children as the first full-time art teacher in the public school systems of Washington County.
As a child, Marilyn knew she wanted to be an artist. She started with drawing and painting horses and dogs. It wasn’t until her teens that she discovered Maine, and then, for decades, she immersed herself in the state’s beauty. Her watercolor and oil paintings include Casco Bay islands in the ’50s, Wiscasset schooners and Muscongus Bay in the ’60s, Freeport Harbor in the early ’70s, an Addison sardine packing factory in the late ’70s and Deer Isle in 2004. Her last painting was of Schoodic Point.
Though in love with Maine, Marilyn was “from away.” She grew up outside Washington, D.C., but her family owned a summer home on Bustins Island in eastern Casco Bay. That’s where she first met Ben just after World War II. Ben’s family had rented a cottage, and he and Marilyn, then young teens, spent the summer together. After, they went separate ways.
“This was before email or Facebook,” Ben said, smiling.
But they reunited on the island in the late ’60s, and that time, they didn’t part. Their marriage was in 1970, and they purchased their own cottage on Bustins Island.
“She was all kinds of lovely things. She was serene. Almost nothing ever flapped her. She was totally content in her own self,” he said, looking at a photo of Marilyn painting in her studio, the tool shed by their cottage on Bustins Island. “And as long as she could lift a brush, she painted.”
A former clam and worm shop in Addison served as their first Maine home together. It was Marilyn’s idea, and she promised to renovate the small building, which stood on granite posts on a dike with the river to one side and a marsh on the other. The house may have had holes in the floor for sluicing away bait and fish guts, but it was in a beautiful location. They added a second story and called it home.
Ben, a school principal and a writer, often read aloud to Marilyn as she painted. She wasn’t a private artist, preferring to share her art with others, a trait that later made her an excellent teacher.
The Carrs were always on the water, sailing up and down the Maine coast.
“She was a much better sailor,” said Ben. “She’d be the skipper and I’d be the mate. We had lots of fun together for lots of years.”
It was in their travels that she found much of her inspiration. Marilyn had a keen eye, often noticing beauty in nature that others would miss. Ben remembers walking on the beach with her and being amused by the fact that she would find all of the beautiful shells, sea glass and pottery shards that he would pass over.
While Maine took the spotlight in much of her art, she mixed a brighter palette to paint the tropical flowers and shells of the Caribbean from their second home on the island of Nevis. And when they traveled to places such as Spain and Denmark, she recorded the sights in sketchbooks, which are included in the exhibit along with other sketches so that viewers can explore her artistic process. The show also features some of her paper castings, wax figures and etchings.
Before beginning her teaching career, Marilyn used her artistic skills to draw fashion design advertisements and interior design sketches in the ’60s and ’70s. She then started teaching in Cherryfield and Columbia Falls elementary schools but needed a degree to teach art. Though she studied art in New York and Philadelphia, it was at the University of Maine at Machias that she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1977.
Her first art teaching job was for grades K-12 in Machias. Later, she taught art for 13 years at Massabesic Junior High School in Waterboro.
Her first student teacher, Eddie Reed, wrote in a letter about Marilyn: “Her demure calm was palpable. I felt welcome instantly. I don’t even think I said my name. We just started talking about art.”
“I thought [having the exhibit at the university] was nice for Machias, nice for her, and good for me,” Ben said. “The bad part will be packing it up and lugging it all away, but I’ll deal with that when the time comes.”
“Wild Irises at Schoodic,” her last painting, sits on a cherry wood easel near the gallery entrance, welcoming viewers in and offering them the same peacefulness that the artist, Marilyn, so naturally possessed.
The UMM Art Gallery, located on the first floor of Powers Gall, is open 1-5 p.m. weekday afternoons or by appointment. To learn more about the exhibit, call UMM Art Gallery Director Bernie Vincani at 255-1279.